Yesteryear's top-of-the-line isn't a patch on today's high end where price is concerned. This gorgeous c. 1976 Sansui AU-11000, now the kind of thing pursued avidly by vintage audio enthusiasts, is for sale on eBay
right now. (See Footnote 2.)
I'm a member of "Generation Jones" and for teenage males of my generation the toy of choice was a stereo—music during our formative years had achieved a cultural prominence it hadn't had before and hasn't had since. (My parents bought me "Abbey Road" for getting all A's in 7th grade, and I still have it.)
As we've aged and made more money, some of those who continue to indulge in the old toys have gotten pretty silly (a.k.a. "serious") about it. The Pear-Shaped One (Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound) coined the term "the high end," and it has become possible—almost easy—to spend $500,000 on a stereo. It's partially status-seeking and/or obsessiveness (fun only if you can afford it), and I got sick of all of it a few years ago and cancelled all my subscriptions to the audio magazines. I listen to music all day (one of the primary attractions of working at home), but my main stereo (I have two) is a bit of a Rube Goldberg contraption (see footnote 1).
The question there isn't really "who spends that kind of money on a stereo?" The answer to that is obvious: people who aren't "price sensitive" to spending tens of thousands of dollars for toys. That means multi-millionaires, in this case those with typical generational Boomer or Joneser enthusiasms. They're out there (cf. the Piketty phenomenon).
The new VPI Classic Direct, an American-made direct-drive, fully manual turntable that costs $30,000. In this case, the cost might actually be related to development and manufacturing costs (but at the link, notice what's in the upper-left-hand corner of the page). Even the cartridge for a turntable of this caliber might cost $5,000 or more.
The more interesting question is how do manufacturers survive selling audio components for tens of thousands of dollars? How does that work? I find that interesting, so I thought I'd sketch it out for you.
The idea is to take the low-volume model to a reductio ad absurdum.
The way it's done is this. First, you do whatever you can to add value to, say, a pair of speakers (there isn't that much, so you have to get creative—and that might include concocting a comprehensive sales pitch of quasi-magical claims). Then you price them at something like $80,000 for a pair, projecting to one and all that they must be great, because, as we all know, price correlates to quality. Then you send a few pairs out to reviewers and let the reviewers pay, say, $8,000 if they want to keep them. You then pay for multiple lavish full-page ads in the audio publications. You thus assure your project of glowing reviews and the admiration of the magazines. (This is not necessarily dishonest—if you pour that much money into a pair of speakers, they will often indeed often—not always—sound good.) Then, say you sell a grand total of…ten pairs of your incredible speaker o' the moment.
A product run of ten doesn't sound great on the face of it. But hey: gross, $800,000. Total investment, $250,000...or whatever it was. (These aren't real numbers, just illustrative.) Your break-even point was three pairs of speakers. At ten, you (and the dealers) have profited half a million dollars or more. If you have a big hit and you find two dozen customers, well, you have a real bonanza on your hands.
Beats working. Also beats the exponentially larger headache of having to earn $800,000 by selling 800 pairs of speakers for $1,000 each or, God forbid, 8,000 pairs of speakers at $100 each.
Six months later the reviewers sell the review units onward for the incredible bargain price of only $16,000 for the pair, the magazines find new components o' the moment to exalt to the skies, and everybody moves on. Including, sometimes, the customers who paid $80k for their speakers, because audio at that level is in many cases an expression of severe obsessive/compulsive disorder, and perfection remains but a holy grail. In fact there is a whole subculture of somewhat less well-heeled audiophiles who feed on the castoffs of the superrich ones.
I heard—just a rumor—of one manufacturer that was boasting of a particular success: a grand total of 60 units sold of a particular high-end component. That's high volume at the high end! As I said, I don't buy the hi-fi magazines regularly any more, but recently I bought one for the first time in a couple of years, and in its pages were not one but two product reviews for electronic components that retailed for $45,000. One a pair of power amps, one a preamp, from different makers. Both from companies that are most likely hoping to sell a total worldwide production run of a few dozen units at best.
That's the way that world works now, for the most part. It's taken all the fun out of audio for all but the few—which is why many people now enjoy vintage audio as a hobby and hang out a places like AudioKarma. (My second system is a vintage system.) Building a great stereo system from multiple independent components is already hopelessly complex, involving million of possible combinations; adding to that all the problems of older components increases the difficulty another five- or tenfold...
...Meaning, it's even more fun. :-)
TOP goes off-topic on most Sundays, and don't think I didn't want to write even more about dogs again today.
Footnote 1: My music files are stored on a hard drive. I use iTunes for what we photographers call digital asset management, and Pure Music as a driver (much superior to the software in iTunes). My DAC (digital to analog converter) is the marvelous Halide DAC HD, which I recommend as a middling-expensive DAC for anyone who runs a system from their computer—whether it's a full rig or small high-quality desktop powered speakers. The Halide runs to a McIntosh C40 preamp within reach of my right hand, from which interconnect cables cross the room to a Belles 150A power amp. That feeds my speakers, which were custom-made for me by the talented Bill Waara in gutted Silverline Audio speaker cabinets. Cabling is all by Blue Jeans Cables, which I recommend unless you want to follow the March Hare where he leads.
It's an expensive system, but not crazily so. The amp and pre-amp were bought used. I sunk more money into the speakers than I might have liked, but I was trying to rescue a disastrous purchase—the Silverlines as they arrived were among the worst-built components I've ever seen in my life, and I've seen a few. The worst things about my stereo are a) the room, which is too small and too square, and b) the fact that I have a 27" iMac in front of my nose all day. About that, you know what they say: Oh well.
Footnote 2: And if I didn't already have a restored Accuphase (Kensonic) E-202 from the same era, I'd be tempted. Note that equipment this old often needs to be "serviced," which can mean anything from enough repair to get it running to a full-on restoration, replacing all the worn-out parts and re-doing all the solder joints. A restoration of a vintage piece can cost more than the component itself. Note also that old equipment being listened to in various states of decay complicates online reviewing to a truly marvelous degree, raising ordinary chaos to a higher plane altogether.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
David Kieltyka: "I'm very particular when it comes to guitar and keyboard amps, and the speakers and cabinets connected to those amps, but not in the least when it comes to the reproduction of recorded music. I can certainly hear the differences between a higher-end audio system, a more typical consumer-level one, and my iPhone's tiny built-in speakers. But those differences have little if any impact on my enjoyment of the music. I guess this has saved me lotsa $$ over the years!"
Mike replies: Your attitude is curiously common among musicians. I speculate it might be because we music listeners are so dependent on our reproduction equipment for our music that it becomes closely associated in our minds with the emotional gratification of music, whereas musicians themselves associate the gratification of music with the making of music rather than the playback of recordings.
It's also possible that musicians are so aware of what music "should" sound like that they're able to translate much more effortlessly in their minds from whatever recorded sound they're presented with to what they know it probably sounded like in real life. I'm convinced I do this with photographic prints; I studied prints so obsessively for so long that when I see a small JPEG of a picture that started out as a print, whether it's a news shot from 60 years ago or a platinum print, I draw on my experience of originals to immediately visualize what the original probably looked like. (I think wilderness landscape photographers do a lot of this too—when they see heroic landscapes they associate the image intimately with their in-person experiences of real landscapes, so they "see more" in the picture than is there for people who haven't done any hiking.)
But back to musicians and stereos: in Hanover when I was in college, there was a classical composer who preferred a horrible old suitcase-style record player like this one, on which he played 33 1/3 records at 78 speed! He said the speeded-up playback let him listen to the structure of the writing more easily. Efforts to entice him to buy a nicer stereo system fell—excuse the expression—on deaf ears.
David Brown: "Back in the 1980s, Bob and Ray (remember them?) had a radio spot about a guy selling dot-matrix printers for $1 million. 'Yeah, but I only have to sell one!'"
Earl Dunbar (partial comment): "The thing about the 'hi-fi bug' is that you can enjoy both equipment acquisition and the music it reproduces at price points to suit one's means."
Mike replies: Excellent point, and you are right, you can.
John McMillin: "When it comes to audio gear, there's an amazingly flexible relationship between cost and performance. I though about this when I attended the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where I sampled the sound and style of the upper reaches of the High End. You could spend hours there, wandering between demo rooms—so I did, impersonating the kind of person who spends five figures for a bespoke, boutique stereo component. All sounded great, and some sounded better than that. I was convinced, consecutively, that small two-way box speakers were best; that ribbon tweeters were better; that big multi-driver speaker towers were supreme; and then that 'free air' panel-mounted cone speakers with no box at all rule the universe.
"If you had given me a check for$50,000 and told me to spend it all right there, I'd still have to watch the budget...but I'd probably go mad first, trying to choose. Also, I couldn't figure out how their customers possessed the savvy and thrift to earn high incomes, but were willing to plow a sizable chunk of it into a small-batch gadget from a tiny company, with unknown future prospects and possibly scarce parts reserves.
"There's good news in audio these days for us 99-percenters, though. The price of good used gear has never been lower. I have three complete component systems in my home, including three Rotel components, a Luxman tuner, two Denon CD changers, two tube amps and four sets of NHT, Polk Audio and Mourdant-Short speakers. The average cost of the components, absent one $500 tube amp, comes out to about $75 each. On average, these speakers cost me $50 a pair, too. That's affordable—it may even be the best benefit I've felt from 'trickle-down economics'! So many people have lost interest in two-channel stereo, CDs, FM radio, in favor of one-box iMediocre audio, that the good gear has become very available, if you know where to look."